Richard Hawley is a musical treasure. His roots are in guitar-based independent music – he used to be in Pulp – but he has blossomed in to a singer-songwriter of the highest calibre. His independent background has kept him out of the mainstream – his highest-ever chart entry is an inexplicable number 40. But, for those in the know, Hawley is one of our finest songwriters. He’s written and performed with the Arctic Monkeys, Elbow and Shirley Bassey. Even Banksy used his music for the closing titles of his film Exit Through the Gift Shop.
But it’s been a frustrating few years since Hawley played in Bristol. Last night, at the Colston Hall, he made up for the absence. He arrived on stage, double-denimed like a modern-day Roy Orbison, and announced that this was last gig of his tour: “So let’s have a banger.” And we did.
With the stall seats removed, the setting was intimate. Hawley and his five-piece band were perched at the very front of the stage and bathed in an impressively atmospheric light show. The Colston Hall sound was the best I’ve ever heard it for an ever-changing and impressive collection of twelve and six-string acoustic, semi-acoustic and electric guitars.
The songs, the band and the performances were nothing short of stellar. Favourites like Tonight the Streets are Ours (as used by Banksy), Coles Corner and Don’t Stare at the Sun were impressive. But Open Up your Door was on another level. Probably the best-received song of the night, the audience was clapping this musical poem from its opening chord. The song typifies Hawley’s genius, building from a beautiful, pin-drop beginning to a full-on guitar and orchestra crescendo. Amazing stuff.
New songs held their own, too – with I Still Want You, Heart of Oak, Tuesday PM and (especially) Sometimes I Feel all standing out.
Between songs, Hawley was funny and engaging. “I didn’t know Bristol was twinned with Las Vegas,” he joked, “they’re the only two places you can pay for sex with chips.”
But he also had a surprise in store – for us and his unsuspecting daughter Rosie, who is a student at Bristol University and was in the crowd. It was Rosie’s birthday. The lights went up, a cake was brought on and we all sang to her. Hawley even made her stand up (she was somewhere up in the gallery). The audience loved it but I suspect she was mortified.
He made up for the embarrassment, however, by dedicating one of the encore songs to her – a magnificent version of What Love Means. “I can’t believe I got through that without crying,” he said afterwards. I didn’t.
For me, however, Hawley saved the best until last, finishing with a grandiose, awe-inspiring version of The Ocean. Thank you, Richard, for 90 minutes of musical perfection. Please don’t leave it so long before you return.